When I announced open submissions for City of Weird over a year and a half ago, a lot of friends from my writer's group (Portland's well-known Dangerous Writers, led by the inimitable Tom Spanbauer) were eager to submit pieces. Because I knew friends would submit and I needed to be objective, I vowed to read all submissions blind, and I barred myself from being in the basement (our sacred Dangerous Writing workshop space) when any of the stories were being read and discussed.
This was kind of easy because group began at four, and I always came late because of my work schedule. I'd arrive and head down the back steps, past the banana plant, to the basement door, open it up and peek in. Across the room: a huge table ringed with writers with stacks of pages, a flurry of voices: "Nope! Sorry! Out!" And I'd be back up the stairs to sit on the porch and wait for discussion of the secret story to end.
Here's one really weird thing about the blind that I imposed upon myself. Never once did I recognize a writer's story when I was reading submissions. Even when I knew his or her voice, style, pet themes. Never once. Take Doug Chase for example. I'd been reading and workshopping his novel, had been listening to his very particular voice for years and I had no idea. I remember when my decisions had been cast and publisher Laura Stanfill turned off the blind, and I scrolled through the names and titles of the stories. When I came to the name next to the story "Squatty and Weasel Boy," I think I said, "Wow" right out loud.
Accepting Doug felt slightly problematic as not only were we in a writing group together, but we both work probably ten feet apart from each other at Powell's. It felt a little like accepting my brother. Would it seem like I was playing favorites? But the story was just too perfect for the book. It was creepy and funny and scary and sad and just the right amount of gory, and it did just what I was looking for: it used one story to tell another.
I liked asking myself two linked questions when reviewing stories. 1. What is the story about? 2. What is the story really about? Separating the piece into layers of meaning and depth.
1. What is "Squatty and Weasel Boy" about: a misfit loner who inadvertently kills a homeless man asleep in the giant industrial trash compactor behind the Burger King where he works, and then, for the next twenty years, is haunted by his ghost.
No one could see Squatty except me. He was always there in my Burger King. He hopped around the seating area, up on tables, stared right in the faces of the customers.
They never knew, except they would complain. It got real cold, and it got real smelly. Bags of garbage smell. Dirty unwashed man smell. Smashed up broken bone bloody smell.
While the customers were distracted by the cold and the stink, Squatty would eat a couple of their fries.
2. What is "Squatty and Weasel Boy" really about: how we are haunted by the connections we fail to make with each other.
I look back at my time at the Burger King and it doesn’t seem real. More like a week than twenty-five years. Like it was me that haunted the place and not just Squatty. I don’t know how it all worked. The rules of ghostology. Because even before I killed him, Squatty was all about me. He haunted me.
Half a ghost. You look at all the homeless people, some of them so far gone. A lot of half ghosts out there that haunt the places where they used to live. Not dead, but not allowed into the real world.
You know what I mean by real world. The world of going to a movie or the mall, sitting in a restaurant with your friends. Not worried about what they think. The world where everything fits, your clothes, your family, everything.
I was half a ghost, too. My whole life half a ghost and I never understood until the end of it.
Another reason I was drawn to "Squatty and Weasel Boy" is that it's based on an actual piece of Portland urban legend. The Burger King where our narrator Weasel Boy works is the one that used to stand on Northwest Broadway and Burnside, and legend has it that it was haunted "by an unknown entity." There was also a story that a homeless man had been crushed to death in the hydraulic trash compactor sometime in the 1980s. Doug took both these stories and mixed them together and ran with it. Here's a picture of that Burger King in its heyday (ghost not shown).
|Photo courtesy lostoregon.org|
I looked on the internet to find a site that talked about the ghost story, but I didn't find anything much other than what I've already said, but I did find this story about Burger King selling Whopper-scented cologne.
You can find stories and essays by Doug Chase online at Nailed Magazine, The Gravity of the Thing, and The Tusk. He will be reading at the City of Weird event at Annie Bloom's on Monday, November 14.